The X-Factor: VR, AR, and MR in Behavioral Health
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The X-Factor: VR, AR, and MR in Behavioral Health

By Alires J. Almon, Director of Innovation, Mental Health Center of Denver

Many behavioral health care organizations are facing the reality of limited resources to support the growing demand for service. The behavioral health workforce has declined by 14% in the last decade and is not showing signs of a trend reversal, just as the demand for support is steadily rising. Mental health, once the realm of quiet and hushed conversation, is now an open topic of discussion. This open discussion encourages more people to seek treatment, which creates more demand for service and support.

At the Mental Health Center of Denver, we recognize the challenge that the convergence of these issues presents. Our solution? Use technology as a force multiplier for the service we provide and to drive positive impact in the following areas: increasing access to services, increasing client engagement with treatments, and ensuring the efficacy of treatment. Mental Health Center of Denver has explored these new avenues by establishing an Innovation Technology Lab as a formal part of the organization. It is housed in the heart of Colorado’s health care entrepreneurial hub – Catalyst Healthcare Technology Innovation campus. The goal is to use this environment to help the organization think outside the box by sitting side by side with other health care innovation labs and driven entrepreneurs who approach health care in very different ways. Our organization is the only behavioral health provider in the building, offering us a unique twoway exchange of knowledge.

The reality of this new behavioral health landscape is that the people we serve are changing. The influences and inputs to their well-being are processed in a way that is very different than those that are providing the service. The younger generation is digital natives – they process their world in a way that is based on multi-tasking and parallel processing – an ability to streamline their world virtually as a way to maximize their real-world experience. To be effective providers, we must understand what that processing means and provide a countermeasure to negative effects by using those same processing inputs. The XR world is one that may be very comfortable and comforting for the people we serve, and we are utilizing that to our advantage.

"Although there are limits to any technology, our willingness to explore the therapeutic innovation of an XR toolkit allows us to go above and beyond to meet our communities’ expectations"

The X factor in these new computer-generated realities is that it provides a full spectrum of service – from the total immersion of virtual reality (VR) to the next level of openness in augmented reality (AR), and also the manipulation of virtual world artifacts inside the real world, which is mixed reality (MR). Each of these realities is known collectively as XR.

With this new lens, we see virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as one opportunity to create an experience that engages the people we serve in a way that other treatments may not. While most people think of the use of XR realities being used in the realm of entertainment – video games and other computer-generated experiences – however, like many new technologies, it has multiple applications. These tools can effectively recreate evidencebased practices. Already utilized in physical health environments, for example, as distraction mechanisms (VR) or as a teaching tool (AR), XR tools and solutions are widely accepted as common practice.

In behavioral health, XR tools enhance the therapeutic experience and have been around for many years. The cost barrier to entry to using these tools has decreased, and the tools have become more robust, making the XR toolkit more accessible to all levels of treatment and use. The devices create a viable platform for applications and processes that are shared between the individual and the therapist. Virtual reality creates high fidelity analog for evidence-based treatments such as exposure therapy to self-supporting meditation for anxiety disorders. Each of these tools extends a therapist’s tool kit for treatment. Not only can this tool be used in a high-level therapeutic session, but it can also be used with case managers and peer support managers. By extending the use of these tools, we can manage the technology in a way that can benefit a greater number of individuals whom we believe will be more engaged in their treatment journeys.

The Mental Health Center of Denver currently manages a portfolio of several XR tools and solutions in our Innovation Technology Lab. Through our partnerships with organizations such as the National Mental Health Innovation Center (NMHIC), we have created a pipeline that takes research from science to service in the real world. It is here where we explore the efficacy of XR solutions. They include using VR as a meditative mindfulness prompt in group therapy sessions. We are also exploring how VR and AR can be part of a therapist’s tool kit for one on one engagement, such as using VR for exposure therapy for social anxiety disorders for both adults and adolescents. To assess XR-type technology solutions, we utilize an internal innovation process to determine the effectiveness of therapeutic practices, in addition to determining alignment into our overall strategy for community behavioral health support.

Our mission is to support all the lives in Denver and provide them with extraordinary experiences. The use of these technologies, such as an XR toolkit, allows our organization to engage our community in a way that meets their needs and, most importantly, the expectation that we provide useful and engaging therapeutic services. Although there are limits to any technology, our willingness to explore the therapeutic innovation of an XR toolkit allows us to go above and beyond to meet our communities’ expectations. 

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